More than a billion Muslims around the world began observing the Islamic month of Ramadan on Sunday. With almost 70,000 Muslims in Ireland, there is a strong possibility that some will be reading this article and/or fasting Muslims will be among readers’ colleagues or neighbours.
Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam which are the framework of Muslim life. These are: testimony of faith; prayer; zakat (charity); fasting during the month of Ramadan; and the once in a lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca for those who are able.
Muslims all over the world fast during the daylight hours of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. This is in keeping with a commandment of the Quran.
This year Muslims in the Northern Hemisphere face one of the most challenging Ramadan for more than 30 years, with long summer days creating the shortest possible window for breaking the daily fast. The holy month straddles the summer equinox this year, meaning early dawns and late sunsets. During Ramadan Muslims fast between dawn and sunset, abstaining from food, drink, smoking and sex. In the depths of winter the daily fast can be as short as eight hours, compared with more than 19 hours in some places this year.
New to the faith
Some Muslim scholars have given legal verdicts (fatwa) that make it easier for Muslims living in the Northern Hemisphere to fast in Ramadan. Specially they are for those who are new to the faith, the elderly and children who wish to fast but simply cannot manage to do so for as long. Last year there were reports of some people being taken to hospital, as well of children falling seriously ill due to fasting for almost 20 hours.
One opinion, for example, states that Muslims living in this region, where the days are abnormally longer than 19 hours, may follow the timetable of Mecca and Madinah, the two holiest cities of Islam. It means they will only be fasting for some 12 hours.
Another opinion allows for eating the morning meal 10 to 15 minutes before sunrise while the standard rule is to stop eating from dawn, which is 1½ hours before sunrise. This opinion also makes it easier to fast.
Muslim scholars have also issued a fatwa stating that students who have exams in Ramadan may defer their fasting to later days. Muslim scholars have given these legal opinions for the welfare of people since, according to scripture, Allah does not seek hardship for his servants.
Despite these opinions and relaxations, most Muslims in the Northern Hemisphere will choose to fast from sunrise to sunset. Some are fortunate to have employers who allow shifts to be moved earlier in the day when energy levels are higher. Others have saved holidays so they don’t work for at least part of Ramadan.
Muslims believe abstinence from food, drink and sex during these daylight hours helps to control these three most powerful appetites and to develop general self-control affecting all other aspects of life. Fasting is about strengthening personal discipline and promoting an awareness of God. It also increases awareness of the hunger and thirst that millions of people experience every day. And it helps strengthen community spirit.
People support one another in fasting and invite each other to the community meals (iftar) at sunset. Ramadan is also the time of year when many Muslims calculate their annual contributions to the welfare of others (zakat).
It was during the month of Ramadan that the Quran was first sent down to Prophet Muhammad and many Muslims will try to recite or hear recitation of the whole Koran during this month.
The end of Ramadan is marked by a day of celebration called Eid-ul- Fitr when Muslims thank Allah for the help and strength that he gave them to help practice self-control. It begins with breakfast after dawn followed by the whole community gathering for festival prayers. People wear their best clothing and gifts are exchanged, especially to children. Families gather for a celebration meal and food is shared with neighbours.
Sheikh Dr Umar Al-Qadri is chair of the Irish Muslim Peace and Integration Council and imam at the Islamic Centre Ireland in west Dublin